PETERBOROUGH, Ont. – A public memorial to Stompin’ Tom Connors was a joyous celebration Wednesday night, as thousands of devoted fans packed the Peterborough Memorial Centre to pay homage to the late Canadian country icon with songs, signs, suds and one standing ovation after another.
An eclectic mixture of Canadian musicians, politicians and Connors’ close friends remembered the unique, black-hatted songwriter behind “Bud the Spud” and “The Hockey Song” while jovial spectators — who had spent the day lining up for access, some singing Connors’ songs and sipping beers — responded enthusiastically to every tribute, clip and anecdote.
“We’re going to show you we really know how to throw a party,” said Connors’ longtime promoter Brian Edwards as he introduced the festivities.
While the ceremony had its sombre moments, from the start it was clear that this was not meant to be a mournful event. And given that Connors had an integral role in planning the memorial before his death last week, Edwards and others were able to say with certainty that the rousing remembrance was conducted exactly the way Connors would have wanted.
He even handpicked most of the lineup of performers, beginning with a spirited fiddle medley from Billy Macinnis, who frequently played with Connors.
Calgary’s Tim Hus performed his original tribute “Man in the Black Hat,” Connors collaborators J.P. Cormier and Dave Gunning teamed for an inspired medley of “Little Wawa” and “Gumboot Cloggeroo,” Sylvia Tyson and Cindy Church collaborated on an elegant version of Connors’ “Farewell to Nova Scotia” and former Rheostatics frontman Dave Bidini contributed his take on “Bridge Came Tumbling Down.”
Testimonials from Connors peers including Rita MacNeil and Liona Boyd were read aloud, while country legend Tommy Hunter sat close to the stage.
In a series of speeches, Connors was remembered as tolerant, authentic, clever and surprisingly warm for a guy who, as Bidini attested, could occasionally level a stare so intense it was “terrifying.” Connors was even, according to Edwards, a savvy Scrabble player.
Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson spoke at particular length about her friendship with Connors, whom she remembered as “truly wonderful.”
“Stompin’ Tom, the man that we’re celebrating today, is that very unusual thing: something that we can all agree about as Canadians,” she said. “He was a gift to us as Canadians. And I think the secret to his gift was that he knew that he was giving it.
“When Stompin’ Tom stomped on that board, he stomped ‘Canada, Canada’ into our hearts,” she added. “We didn’t ask for Stompin’ Tom. He just blew onto us like a wonderful wind.”
And Canadian politician and author Ken Dryden, famed of course as goalie for Connors’ beloved Montreal Canadiens, reminisced on the joy he felt hearing “The Hockey Song” ring out in arenas during his NHL days.
“Tom could do two things I always wanted to but couldn’t: sing and wear a cowboy hat,” he said.
Dryden later asked the audience to stand for the “national hockey anthem,” and a collective sing-along of Connors’ most famous tune commenced.
The crowd was indeed rarely quiet for long. The speeches were intermittently interrupted by outbursts of applause, cheering or the odd shout of “We miss you Tom!” from the passionate assemblage.
The evening did begin with a rare solemn moment, as nine members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police carried Connors’ casket — covered entirely in a Canadian flag — onto the stage. Connors’ wife, Lena, then walked out to a rousing standing ovation and placed a black cowboy hat on top. Other personal effects surrounded it, including a piece of plywood like the hunks of wood Connors used to bury his boot in onstage.
The memorial then began, and the fans were ready. A technical glitch prevented the audience from hearing the sound during a video of Connors performing “The Peterborough Postman,” but some observers were undaunted.
“Everybody sing!” shouted one spectator. Added another: “Come on, we all know it!”
And many pointed out that Connors would have relished the celebratory mood.
“Tom orchestrated this whole thing,” said Tyson. “This is his show. And he’s here.”
Damhnait Doyle sure seemed to understand the spirit of the evening, pausing dramatically just before her performance of “The Coal Boat Song.”
“I need beer — it feels weird not to do this with beer,” she said, before charging offstage and returning with a brew in hand.
While Connors actually lived a couple hours away in Halton Hills, Peterborough made sense for a few reasons. It was there that Connors first received his famous “Stompin’ Tom” moniker, a nickname conjured by a waiter at the King George Tavern back in 1967 after observing Connors hammering the stage with the heel of his left boot to keep time.
He subsequently found a particularly warm reaction from the southeastern Ontario town, and was given the keys to the city years ago in an honorary gesture. Brian believes Connors played Peterborough more than any other town.
But on Wednesday night, fans flowed in from all over, from Vancouver to Prince Edward Island, where Connors spent his early life. Many shared their memories of Connors as they waited for the service to begin.
Musician Joe Bulger recalled that when he put out a CD in 2006, Connors sent him a postcard of congratulations.
“We’re all here for the same reason,” said Bulger, clutching a laminated copy of the letter. “He’s a class Canadian and that’s all you need to say about the man. There’ll never be another Sir Tom.”
Added 34-year-old Sara Maclean: “It was very cool to know that this is a piece of history that I got to take part in.”
The final speech of the evening belonged to Connors’ son, Tom Jr., who noted that this was the first time the late singer’s four children were ever gathered in the same room.
In his tribute to his dad, he looked to the future.
“We’re giving him the best sendoff we possibly can because he did everything he could for us to feel better about being Canadian,” said Tom Connors Jr., who bears a striking resemblance to his famous father.
“He travelled coast to coast seeing all of you. There would be no Stompin’ Tom without all of you.
“I heard some people comment (at) the funeral, saying there’ll never be another Stompin’ Tom,” he added. “Well, I got news for you. We still have a Canada, and we still have the roads, towns, people, jobs — and that’s what Tom wrote about. So never say never…. He never liked anyone copying him, but anyone who wants to sing about Canada, keep ‘er on going.
“It’s nice to travel south. It might be warmer on the skin, but if you go east and west, it’ll be warmer on your hearts.”
After the casket was carried offstage, Edwards said that Connors had specified he didn’t want the night to end on a down note. So a flock of musicians returned to the stage to sing “Sudbury Saturday Night,” while audience members danced in the aisles.